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Rape kit lawsuit dismissal will be appealed

To be expected.

Two women who on Friday lost a lawsuit against the City of Houston and a variety of officials over a rape kit backlog will file an appeal, an attorney for the women announced in a news release on Tuesday.

[…]

[Attorney Randall] Kallinen has argued in court that the backlog was “a violation of the due process, equal protection and unreasonable search and seizure clauses of the Texas and United States Constitutions.”

In a news release last Friday, the City of Houston pushed back against those claims, saying that “the plaintiffs did not allege any violations of rights guaranteed by the Constitution, nor did they raise any other legal grounds to hold Houston and its current and former officials responsible.”

The city also argued that there was no longer a rape kit backlog, rendering the women’s legal claims “six years too late.” Two private laboratories eliminated that backlog in 2013 and 2014, the Chronicle previously reported.

In an interview, Kallinen pushed back against this argument, arguing that the women were not aware their rape kits had any problems until police contacted them and that “the statute of limitations should be delayed” as a result, citing what he called “the discovery rule.”

See here for the background. I have no expertise on the legal questions being raised here. My primary interest is in ensuring that we never have another rape kit backlog like this again. It’s shameful enough that it has happened before (twice, in fact). There’s no excuse for it ever happening again.

Rape kit backlog lawsuit dismissed

Interesting.

A federal judge has dismissed a 2017 lawsuit two rape victims filed against Houston’s current mayor and police chief and five sets of predecessors, among others, for allowing a backlog of rape kits to accumulate over decades without being tested, arguing that failure ensured the plaintiffs’ attackers were on the street when they otherwise could have been behind bars.

Both women were raped by serial offenders whose DNA had long been in police databases, but who went unidentified until Houston paid two private laboratories to erase its backlog of more than 6,000 untested kits in 2013 and 2014.

The plaintiffs sought damages, saying city officials violated their rights to due process and equal protection, and that officials illegally took her property and violated her personal privacy and dignity under the Fourth Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore dismissed the case, saying the suit had not been filed quickly enough and that the plaintiffs’ claims did not cover rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. Not clear at this time if the plaintiffs intend to appeal the ruling, but that’s always a possibility. The city is working to eliminate another backlog, and I very much hope that includes a more long-range plan to prevent backlogs from occurring in the future. The city – and the county, and the state, and Congress – should not need to be coerced into doing this properly.

In which we try again to eliminate a rape kit backlog

How exactly did we get here?

The city’s independent crime lab on Tuesday announced an ambitious plan to clear a backlog of hundreds of rape kits and other DNA evidence, the latest effort to rein in a recurring problem that has bedeviled criminal prosecutions for more than a decade.

Over a 10-month period, the Houston Forensic Science Center plans to spend $2 million to outsource testing of nearly 1,000 cases and cross-train staff in data analysis with the hope of preventing similar backlogs in the future.

“HFSC, like many labs across the country, has long struggled with backlogs in its DNA section,” said Dr. Peter Stout, HFSC’s CEO and president. “Our plan is to simultaneously eliminate a longstanding backlog while building a sustainable, efficient process that allows for an average 30-day turnaround time on DNA work.”

Officials said cross-training staff would help alleviate future delays, particularly during the data analysis of the testing, a time-intensive process that fewer than 10 analysts are authorized to perform.

[…]

Evidence backlogs have plagued Houston law enforcement for decades. A 2002 scandal at the Houston Police Department’s crime lab led the department to temporarily shutter its lab and led to calls for a regional testing lab.

The department reopened its lab, but then weathered additional scandals in 2009, after its rape kit backlog swelled to more than 4,000 cases and its fingerprint backlog surpassed 6,000 cases.

That same year, the National Academy of Sciences found serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system, and called for forensic labs to be operated independently of law enforcement departments.

Four years later, after spending millions of dollars, the department announced that it had cleared its rape kit backlog.

Questions, I have questions.

1. As the story notes, the previous backlog, which predates the creation of the HFSC, was cleared in 2013. Like I said up front, how did we get here five years later?

2. To be more specific, is this a matter of priorities, or of resources? If it’s priorities, what tasks for the lab are being prioritized over “rape kits and other DNA evidence”?

3. If it’s resources – the story does note that “fewer than 10 analysts are authorized to perform” the backlogged tasks – then what will it cost to avoid this in the future? Where does that funding come from?

4. Not a question, but since someone (such as a former candidate for Mayor whose name I no longer feel obligated to mention) will surely call for the HFSC to be merged with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, I will simply note that the HCIFS has had its own backlog issues in recent years.

I can understand why these questions might not have been addressed in the initial reporting. I do hope they will come up in subsequent stories.

Lawsuit filed over untested rape kits

This could be a big deal.

A former Houston woman is suing the City of Houston and a long list of current and former mayors and police chiefs for failing to investigate a backlog of more than 6,000 untested rape kits, and not identifying her attacker as a man who had been in a national police database for decades.

In one of several cases brought by victims against officials around the country in recent years, the victim of a 2011 sexual assault in Houston claims in a federal civil rights lawsuit this week that her perpetrator could have been apprehended and prosecuted for earlier crimes if officials had kept on top of the massive backlog of DNA samples in the city’s possession.

DeJenay Beckwith, 35, who now lives in Milam County, contends city officials failed to pursue a serial offender in her case, or investigate rape kits for other victims, because they don’t take women or child victims seriously. She is seeking damages, saying city officials violated her rights to due process and equal protection, and officials illegally took her property and violated her personal privacy and dignity under the Fourth Amendment.

[…]

Houston tackled the backlog of rape kits in early 2013 under former Mayor Annise Parker and ex-Chief Charles McClelland, drawing on $4 million in federal grants to outsource DNA testing with private forensic labs. Parker led the initiative to remove the crime lab from HPD management in April 2014 – although it remains in the HPD headquarters building – after the creation of an independent city-funded lab now overseen by civilian forensic experts.

According to court documents, Beckwith met her assailant on April 2, 2011, when he pretended to be a mechanic and offered to fix her broken down car. He asked to come inside her Southwest Houston home for a glass of water.

According to the lawsuit, he proceeded to throw her to the floor, strike her repeatedly and rape her. She chased him on foot, and a neighbor joined the chase, but he escaped in his car.

A rape kit taken at Memorial Hermann Southwest as a result of her police report was taken to the city’s crime lab.

Beckwith’s lawyers say the kit went untested for five years. During that time, she got one phone call from a detective who wanted to know what she was doing wandering on Bissonnet when she met her assailant, implying she was a prostitute and saying, “These things happen.”

The detective discouraged her from filing a report, telling her it was unlikely the suspect would be caught, according to the lawsuit.

She next heard from Houston police in 2016, when they contacted her to say they tested the DNA and they had a suspect. She later learned the man’s name was David Lee Cooper. Cooper had prior sexual assault convictions, including one from 2002 involving minor child. His DNA had been in the Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS and managed by the FBI, since 1991.

The details of what happened to Ms. Beckwith are awful and troubling, and if the account of what the detective told her is accurate, I hope he’s no longer in that job. It’s too late to do anything to help Ms. Beckwith in any meaningful way, but we sure can get to the bottom of why this all happened and take steps to make sure it never happens again. The Press and ThinkProgress have more.

HPD wants control of crime scene forensics for officer-involved shootings

No.

HoustonSeal

Houston’s acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo, with the support of the powerful Houston Police Officers Union, has made a behind-closed-doors bid to take back control over the troubled Crime Scene Unit from the city’s independent forensic science lab.

The Crime Scene Unit is small but critical – its technicians gather and photograph evidence from all homicides, including incidents in which police officers use deadly force against civilians.

Montalvo’s move comes in the wake of a highly critical audit by three outside experts who concluded in July that crime scene investigators need increased independence from the Houston Police Department – not less – to objectively gather evidence in shootings involving HPD officers.

The audit focused on eight recent officer-involved shootings in 2016 and concluded that crime scene analysts had in some cases been influenced in their evidence collection decisions by statements made by other officers at the shooting scene. The audit found that analysts had failed to properly collect evidence, including bullets, photos and samples, and needed more training. The unit is currently made up of a mix of sworn officers, who are members of the police union, and civilian lab employees overseen by a civilian director.

Montalvo proposed taking back control over the unit at a private meeting earlier this summer with Nicole Casarez, a prominent criminal defense attorney who heads the advisory board of the independent crime lab, the Houston Forensic Science Center. Ray Hunt, the police union president, attended the meeting and fully supported the change. It’s on hold while lab operations undergo larger efficiency review ordered by Mayor Sylvester Turner, according to statements city officials have provided to lab board members.

“We have been in ongoing discussions with the Houston Forensic Science Center on HPD possibly taking back the Crime Scene Unit personnel, many of who are HPD officers who collect evidence,” Montalvo said Friday. “We’ve discussed some concerns on our end to help improve time efficiency on some crime scenes. It is important to note we continue to meet regularly, share dialogue on the matter and continue to have a good, positive working relationship among our agencies.”

The unit was split off from HPD two years ago when the department’s crime lab became independent – a change that at the time had the full support of former HPD Chief Charles McClelland as a way to build up public confidence in the quality of that lab, which had been involved in multiple scandals related to huge backlogs, untested rape kits and poor forensics.

McClelland, in an interview, said he did not think returning the unit to HPD was a good idea. “I don’t think it would build confidence in the public’s mind – absolutely not,” he said. “To solve the issue is to have extremely well-trained evidence technicians that are independent of HPD. … It doesn’t take an HPD officer to be an evidence technician – I think we can all agree on that.”

Casarez and other crime lab officials have said in interviews that returning the unit to HPD would likely hamper efforts to win its accreditation – and could undermine public confidence in the independence of the new lab itself, particularly in light of the recent audit.

McClelland and Casarez are correct, Montalvo and Hunt are wrong. Forensic investigations and evidence collections in general should be done by techs who are independent of law enforcement, so that no one has any reason to doubt their objectivity. This is doubly true for cases where police officers are being investigated, for the same reason why body cameras and recorded investigations benefit the police as much as they benefit the public. I hope Mayor Turner stands firm on this. Grits has more.

Harris County crime lab experiencing DNA testing backlog

These things do happen.

I want one of these

Never miss a chance to embed the DNA Robot

Expanded testing for property crimes has helped create a backlog of more than 4,600 DNA cases in the Harris County crime lab, straining its ability to complete the processing of such evidence for sexual assaults and even homicide cases in a timely manner.

Officials with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences say a relentless uptick in property crime, robbery and assault cases has stretched the lab’s resources. The spikes can be traced in part to the lab’s own push in recent years to expand its forensic operations and offer law enforcement agencies more DNA testing for property crimes.

The lab serves more than 60 law enforcement agencies, which rely on it to process DNA evidence as part of criminal investigations. Officials are particularly concerned about how the backlog has affected sexual assault cases, which they’ve pledged to make a priority as the cases have recently taken longer to finish.

Sexual assault cases took on average of 172 days to complete in 2015, far from the county’s 60-day goal and the roughly 60 to 90 days that they took from 2009 to 2013 The average for homicides and death investigations is now 238 days, though it is more difficult to set a benchmark in such cases because evidence often comes in piecemeal over time.

The backlog – defined by county lab officials as containing any case that has not been completed – has set off a debate over how to prioritize DNA testing in the short term and handle lesser offenses such as property crimes in the long term.

[…]

[Crime Lab Director Roger] Kahn said the lab already has essentially halted analyses of DNA in some property crimes. Last July, the institute said it would suspend “touch DNA” analysis – such as testing for microscopic skin cells containing DNA that naturally rub off on objects – for almost all property crimes.

The moves have contributed to a drop in the number of sexual assault cases that take more than 60 days to complete: after reaching 252 in January, that number was 148 last month, Kahn said.

He stressed that the high numbers are also in part because of new protocols to reanalyze some cases that have samples containing multiple people’s DNA. These, he said, can often be the most complex cases.

All this being said, Kahn acknowledged that the turnaround times are too high.

He said lab officials are looking at halting some analyses of assault and robbery cases. The lab is also planning to work with sexual assault nurse examiners to better identify samples to analyze in such cases, and is weighing other possible workflow improvements.

For their part, county commissioners on Tuesday approved the crime lab’s move to apply for a National Institute of Justice grant of more than $645,000 that would help its DNA division – the Forensic Genetic Laboratory – reduce the backlog. It has applied for and received the same grant since 2005.

Commissioners also approved a roughly $100,000 contract to outsource some property-crime testing to a private company, Bode Cellmark Forensics, an uncommon move but one that the county has made in the past.

[…]

It’s unclear what will happen to property crime cases, and possibly robbery and assault cases, that the county crime lab may set aside to focus on sexual assaults and homicides. Kahn said the lab works closely with law enforcement and the district attorney’s office to prioritize cases, even those involving property crimes.

At Wednesday’s meeting, District Attorney Devon Anderson questioned whether the lab should be making decisions of what types of cases to prioritize.

Sheriff Ron Hickman said telling the public that the county lab had the technology to solve crimes, but couldn’t use it because of lack of resources, would not “play well.”

“How do you get to say, ‘No?'” Hickman said.

Kahn said the current focus is on sexual assault cases. Then lab officials, with other public officials, will determine how best to use the lab’s resources.

There’s a lot there and I don’t want to make too big a deal over it. Both DA Anderson and Sheriff Hickman raise good questions, for which they deserve better answers than “we’ll figure it out later”. If this is a matter of resources, then Commissioners Court needs to address that. The County Crime Lab serves multiple cities in addition to the county, so it’s not just their own business that’s being affected.

We can’t discuss the Harris County crime lab without mentioning the Houston lab and the ongoing debate over whether the two should merge. I’ve noted before that there are questions about how the county handles crime lab issues and how the city’s needs would be accounted for. This situation highlights those concerns. As the story notes, the city’s crime lab has its own backlog issues, though they are smaller and seem to be on track towards resolution. I’m just pointing this out to note that there are questions to answer before anything can go forward. If you want this to go forward, which is certainly a reasonable thing, those questions need to be addressed. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s not nothing and shouldn’t be treated as nothing.

The pros and cons of merging the crime labs

The calls to merge the city and county crime labs are back, but not everyone likes the idea.

Merging Houston’s and Harris County’s crime labs, an idea that was rejected several years ago by the city’s mayor when forensic work was shifted from the police department to a new independent agency, is getting a fresh look by local officials eager to save money and avoid duplication.

All of the members of the Harris County Commissioners Court are renewing calls for the county to take over forensic work from the city lab, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last week that he is interested in pursuing either a merger or further partnership with the county, in contrast to his predecessor.

Yet some at the city’s forensic science center are loathe to forego its independent structure. They wonder whether a shakeup for a lab only just pulling away from its troubled history would cause more harm than good.

“I think cooperation between the two organizations is entirely possible,” said Peter Stout, chief operating officer of the Houston Forensic Science Center. “But merger? I’m not sure whether the citizens are going to get the benefit from that on a timeline that makes sense. And they risk backing up on demonstrable progress that we’ve made to this point.”

Even so, Turner has asked his chief development officer to explore what such a move would entail as county staffers examine potential funding and governance for such a venture and how it might affect the time it takes to process evidence.

“How much volume do they have at the City of Houston? What would have to take place as (to) not only the amount of space, but how would we merge?” are among the other questions, county budget director Bill Jackson said.

[…]

Despite mounting political enthusiasm for a joint venture, however, several city forensic science officials were skeptical of the idea, noting the logistical challenges of a merger they characterized as financially and scientifically risky.

“We’re not producing a widget here,” said David Leach, the group’s chief financial officer. “We’re producing a service which is helping protect the citizens. So, how much are you willing to risk?”

Such an endeavor would require negotiations over governance and funding rooted in the politically touchy question of control.

“What’s the structure going to look like? How’s that going to work? Who’s going to fund it? What are the working cultures of the two labs like? You could end up with two groups of employees with different working philosophies,” said William King, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University.

The county’s Institute of Forensic Sciences now reports to county commissioners, the county’s governing board. None of the staff work for law enforcement.

The Houston Forensic Science Center, on the other hand, is overseen by a board of directors appointed by the mayor. About four of 10 staffers are city employees, either HPD officers or civilians.

Governance was among the sticking points after a civil grand jury recommended consolidating the crime labs for the city of Los Angeles and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, said Barry Fisher, former director of their sheriff’s crime lab.

The move could have had potential savings of nearly $3 million, according to the grand jury. But they kept their operations separate, Fisher said, calling the prospect of the county taking over city police forensic work a “deal breaker.”

“Sheriff’s and LAPD management indicated that they did not believe it was feasible to consolidate the two agencies’ crime lab services into a single agency,” according to a 2010 audit of the project. “They believed that differences in forensic policies, possible conflicts over operations and prioritization of cases, and additional administrative requirements made consolidating the services unworkable.”

Fisher said city leaders worried about their ability to prioritize cases if they had to compete with other jurisdictions for crime lab services. Instead the city and county work together in the same building in a partnership with a local university, which has produced other benefits, Fisher said.

“There’s interaction on a regular, daily basis,” he said. “I’ve watched people who are working on a particularly difficult, high-profile case walk over to somebody in the other lab, the city lab, and say ‘What do you think about this?’ ”

Governance was the main reason why Mayor Parker declined to pursue a joint crime lab. She also noted in the exit interview she did with me that the projected savings from a joint operation would be minimal. Be that as it may, this Chron story from last July illustrates the concern over governance:

The thieves leave invisible evidence on kitchen countertops, china cabinets, garage doors and steering wheels that can lead to their undoing: microscopic skin cells that contain their DNA.

In Harris County, these “touch DNA” samples have in recent years identified hundreds of suspects in home burglaries and car break-ins that would have been nearly unsolvable without them.

But now the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences has sent out a memo to the 69 law enforcement agencies it serves suspending touch DNA analysis due to diminished resources and burgeoning demand.

Officials were forced to temporarily halt the service, ironically, because testing for touch DNA has been so successful.

“We didn’t anticipate this remarkable growth and what law enforcement has done to embrace DNA testing services in general,” said Dr. Roger Kahn, the forensic institute’s crime laboratory director. “We need to reassess our service levels in order to keep up.”

The suspension will not affect the Houston Police Department, which relies on the city’s crime lab to perform DNA analysis. The Houston Forensic Science Center began performing DNA analysis in some property crime cases after the city cleared HPD’s backlog of thousands of rape kits awaiting DNA testing.

But the county crime lab’s suspension of the cutting-edge forensic testing, which it took the initiative to offer eight years ago, could impact property crime investigations for dozens of law enforcement agencies.

It’s a matter of how things get prioritized, and who gets to decide what those priorities are. Houston and HPD would be the biggest customer in a joint crime lab, but not the only one. What happens when the city has a disagreement with a decision the joint crime lab makes? Or when the city feels its needs are not being adequately met? These are not insurmountable problems, but they do have to be addressed before it makes sense to get hitched. If and when they are worked out to the point that everyone feels their needs can be met, then it makes sense to proceed. Until then, I understand why the city is reluctant to give up something that is working for them.

More suspects arrested from the rape kit backlog

More good news.

Houston’s effort to test a nearly three-decade backlog of sexual assault kits has resulted in new charges filed against 19 people, city officials said Monday, including 10 suspects identified and arrested for the first time.

One of the new suspects has been charged in connection with two assaults; another remains at large, Houston Police Department spokesman John Cannon said. The other eight suspects, he said, already are in jail on other charges and now face sexual assault charges.

City Council in 2013 paid $4.4 million to two private labs to test DNA samples from 9,750 cases, including a backlog of 6,600 rape kits dating to 1987. The labs’ work is nearly done, and staff from HPD and the city’s forensics lab now are entering all eligible genetic information into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a national law enforcement database.

So far, DNA from 1,031 of those cases has produced “hits,” meaning a suspect’s DNA already was in the database in connection with an earlier crime. In the vast majority of cases reviewed to date, officials said the suspects are known to police, having been arrested, convicted or detained at some point.

HPD Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard said the reviews have confirmed police arrested the right person in 58 sexual assault cases, but officials did not release details Monday about these cases or the 19 suspects hit with new charges. The Houston Chronicle reported in April the testing had identified at least one serial rapist already in jail on other charges.

The police officials gathered Monday at City Hall with Mayor Annise Parker and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to celebrate the renewal of a federal law that frees up millions of dollars to help cities test sexual assault kits. Parker and Cornyn also lauded the city task force – headed by three lieutenants, eight sergeants and 33 investigators – charged with clearing the backlog by updating criminal cases and making arrests as suspects are identified.

See here, here, and here for the background. Let me also recommend that you read Emily DePrang’s in depth story in the Observer about how we got here, and how HPD is now leading the way nationally when it comes to dealing with untested rape kits. A few bits to whet your interest:

The trouble is, demand for DNA testing in many places continued to outstrip growth in crime-lab capacity. Backlogs, once cleared, would quickly form again. In 2009, a CBS News investigation found that rape kits in Alabama and Illinois took, on average, six months to process. In Missouri, the wait was almost a year.

These kits—the ones submitted by law enforcement to crime labs for analysis but not returned for more than 30 days—are what the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice, considers “backlogged.”

But that’s not what happened in Texas.

Rather, most of the 19,000 kits reported (so far) never saw the inside of a lab because a sexual assault investigator made the decision not to have them tested. Victims who endure DNA collection may understandably assume it will be analyzed as part of the investigative process, but until recently, law enforcement officers could choose whether to test a kit. Often, they chose not to.

This was by no means limited to Texas. A 2011 survey by the National Institute of Justice found that, on average, nearly one in five recent unsolved rape cases nationally contain forensic evidence for which police never requested analysis.

The language used to talk about untested kits can obscure this deliberateness. If only for brevity, law enforcement and victims’ rights advocates alike have embraced the term “backlog” to describe all untested kits, but this can wrongly suggest that testing was attempted or intended. The term “backlog” implies the problem was simply a lack of resources instead of a conscious decision by police not to test. Similarly, untested kits are usually described as having been “discovered,” often “discovered in a warehouse,” as if evidence for thousands of sexual assault cases had been misplaced. That’s misleading, too.

“I think on some level jurisdictions love to use the word ‘discovered,’” says Sarah Tofte, vice president of policy and advocacy for the national Joyful Heart Foundation, “because that makes them feel, in a way, a little bit better, and maybe look a little less culpable.” The Joyful Heart Foundation runs the website EndtheBacklog.org, a clearinghouse for information on the quest to test all kits. Tofte says, “I think when people hear, ‘Oh, they discovered a backlog,’ they imagine there was some abandoned meat locker somewhere in a field, and they opened it and said, ‘Oh my gosh! There are all these untested rape kits! We had no idea.’ But yes, jurisdictions know. They know because it’s their policy. If their policy is, ‘Don’t send everything to the lab,’ there shouldn’t be a surprise when there’s a backlog.”

[…]

In 2010—before [Sen. Wendy] Davis’ bill—HPD, on its own initiative, had already implemented a test-all-kits policy. Then it successfully applied for a competitive grant from the National Institute of Justice. The grant, awarded just to Houston and Detroit, provided funds for the city not only to inventory its kits, but to study why so many went untested for so long, and to institute reforms. This wasn’t a secretive internal probe, either. Since early 2011, guided by the grant, HPD has hosted regular meetings of a diverse team of researchers, victims’ advocates, health care workers, forensic scientists, prosecutors and police brass, all dedicated to improving their response to sexual-assault survivors in Houston. When the grant ends in October, the group plans to continue its work independently.

Before sitting down together as part of the straightforwardly named Sexual Assault Kit Action-Research Task Force, many of these parties hadn’t previously communicated, let alone collaborated. Others, like victims’ rights advocates and some HPD investigators, were downright adversarial. As part of the group’s research, social scientists surveyed the attitudes of people in the justice system toward victims’ rights advocates and found that investigators in HPD’s Adult Sex Crimes Unit were particularly averse to outside meddling. One investigator told the group’s researchers, “…[Advocates] lead the woman to believe things that aren’t true.” Another complained, “[Advocates] have an agenda and take the woman’s side immediately.”

Undeterred, HPD moved forward with a plan to add a “justice advocate” to the Adult Sex Crimes Unit: a master’s-level social worker charged with improving investigators’ interactions with victims. The advocate, Emily Burton-Blank, was installed within earshot of investigators—a major breach of traditional police insularity—and investigators were required to involve her when contacting victims prone to dropping out of the process, such as people who are homeless or suffering from mental illness.

“Where we saw a large issue was the fact that a lot of people were dropping out of the system shortly after reporting [their rapes],” says HPD Assistant Chief Lentschke. “So we looked at that. How can we keep them in longer? Emily [the advocate] is a living, breathing idea. She’s done magnificent. And the investigators who were so anti-advocate … now they absolutely love her. That’s a huge turnaround.”

Sonia Corrales, chief program officer for the Houston Area Women’s Center, agrees. “Whenever we send a survivor [to HPD],” she says, “we know that when they talk to Emily, they’re getting really great service.”

The justice advocate position was originally slated to last less than a year and be funded only through the grant, but HPD officials quickly found the results so impressive that they made the position permanent and committed to hiring more advocates in the future.

It’s one of several steps HPD has taken to improve its treatment of sexual-assault survivors. New policies now require investigators to go into the field to investigate assaults rather than closing cases if victims fail to return phone calls or respond to a letter. The adult unit recently set aside a private room in which to take victims’ statements rather than interviewing them in the open, surrounded by other staff and ringing phones. And investigators have gotten new training, including education on the neurobiology of trauma so they can better recognize and respond to it.

But most important, HPD leadership has committed to ending the culture of victim blaming.

It’s a great story, so go read the whole thing. And did you notice the reference in there to Wendy Davis? A bill she authored in 2011 provided funding for rape kit testing, requiring every law enforcement agency to tally and report its untested sexual assault kits, and mandating that law enforcement agencies submit kits to a crime lab within 30 days. HPD as noted had gotten started before then, but the rest of the state wouldn’t be where it is now without that bill. Every one of these arrests is a reason to celebrate, as is the revelation – which I admit comes as a bit of a surprise – that no wrongly convicted offenders have been identified. With the winding down of this important project, the city’s new Forensic Science Center should be in good position going forward to ensure that there is never again this kind of backlog. Kudos to all for getting this done, and to Mayor Parker for making it a priority of her administration. Grits has more.

More on the new Crime Lab boss

Meet Dr. Daniel Garner, the CEO and president of the Houston Forensic Science Center.

Dr. Daniel Garner

Daniel Garner was ready to drift quietly into retirement after decades on the forefront in the field of forensic science.

The last part of his career had the 66-year-old on the go, traveling to foreign countries for the U.S. Department of Justice, helping to revamp struggling crime labs, sometimes in nations enduring political and economic hardships. Just on the short list, Garner helped build a crime lab in Kosovo from scratch, trained more than 1,000 forensic experts in Colombia in how to properly present evidence in court and helped make improvements in the Sri Lankan forensic laboratory that gained it an international accreditation.

While the work was rewarding, it was also hectic. Often he traveled in armed security details, had to undergo vaccinations and dealt with foreign authorities who searched his hotel room, suspicious of his visit to their country.

So when he gave his notice in 2012, he was ready to go.

He and his wife left Washington, D.C., for a small town on the outer banks of North Carolina. The couple started shopping for a home, preferably one near the river that would be perfect for a small pier. Garner imagined relaxing on the deck of his bobbing sailboat and taking in the local galleries during the town’s art walks.

Then, just months into his retirement, Garner was lured back to work as director of the Houston Forensic Science Center, the reincarnation of the once-beleaguered Houston Police Department crime lab.

The new lab is based on a concept that seems simple, but is revolutionary in the field: the lab will operate independently of law enforcement. If the model succeeds, Garner said, it could be a blueprint for crime labs across the country, letting labs operate with greater independence and away from the shadow of law enforcement influence.

“I know there are a lot of people watching Houston to see how this works,” he said. “It’s an extremely unique model and I wanted to be apart of it.”

Dr. Garner was hired a year ago to direct the HFSC, but as far as I know this is the first real story about his experience and background. He’s got an impressive resume, that’s for sure. I have a lot of hope for this project, so it’s good to know it’s in good hands.

HPD crime lab update

The man who wrote the report detailing all of the HPD crime lab’s problems was back to give a progress report on how things look now.

Michael Bromwich

Houston police managers at the once-shuttered crime lab have failed to re-examine tests on DNA, blood and most other forensic evidence on a random basis to ensure the results are accurate, according to a follow-up report by the nationally known forensic expert hired to investigate the facility.

The crime lab, under Houston Police Department management, continues to outsource several integral testing services common for the lab, including a type of firearms testing that determines how far a gun was from a target when it was fired, Michael Bromwich’s report noted. That information is crucial in the investigation of officer-involved shootings.

But overall, Bromwich concluded, HPD has done a “responsible job” implementing many recommendations he made in 2007 following an extensive, two-year investigation after the lab was closed due to flawed testing procedures and practices.

“We were very encouraged with what we saw in our review of the crime lab,” Bromwich said this past week. “The most pronounced improvement was the quality of senior managers in the lab.”

Bromwich also said the city’s lab, at the police headquarters building at 1200 Travis, is not big enough for the current workload and needs a “significant” amount of additional space. City leaders said they have no plan to move the facility, although some on City Council favor merging operations with a new forensic center being built by Harris County.

[…]

Bromwich was hired by the board of the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corp. , with the help of a $75,000 grant from a Houston foundation, to determine if changes his team suggested in 2007 have been implemented.

“There is still room for improvement … we think with the right resources devoted to it, and the right leadership, the lab can improve still more,” Bromwich said.

The TL;DR version of this story is “Much better now. Some things still need to be done. More money is needed to get those things done.” The original report is still here, if you’ve never looked at it or want to refresh your memory. Merging the HPD lab with the new Harris County facility would likely help resolve a number of the remaining issues from the Bromwich report. Mayor Parker has been adamant that she wants the Harris County lab to be fully independent of the District Attorney’s office before she will let that happen. I continue to believe there’s room for a solution to be worked out. I’d love to see it happen before her term in office ends.

Anthony Robinson named to crime lab LGC

Excellent choice.

Anthony Robinson

Anthony Robinson

The latest appointment to the city’s crime lab oversight board brings a unique perspective to the post.

Anthony Robinson spent 10 years in prison for a rape he did not commit before being exonerated by the kind of DNA testing the proposed new crime lab will perform.

“I am very sensitive to the errors made by the defense bar in the use, misuse, or failure to properly use forensics, particular when the evidence is presented (or not presented) by the state,” Robinson wrote in an email from Beijing, where he had traveled on business. “Science is objective when properly performed and utilized.”

The City Council approved his appointment by Mayor Annise Parker on Wednesday.

Parker said Robinson’s appointment to the board of Houston Forensic Science LGC Inc., the local government corporation created by the City Council last year to develop a crime lab independent of the Houston Police Department, was based on more than just his compelling personal history.

“He’s going to be an even better board member because he has skills as an attorney and his being very familiar with the criminal justice system,” she said. “And community contacts and ties, as well.”

My interview with Robinson from his campaign for District D is here. He’s an impressive person, and he will be an insightful and much-needed voice on the crime lab’s board. Well done.

Meet the new Crime Lab boss

He sounds impressive.

The fuzzy process of shifting the city of Houston’s crime lab from the Houston Police Department to an independent board got a little clearer Wednesday with the hiring of a president and CEO for the new operation.

The appointed board of the city’s year-old forensic science corporation selected Dr. Daniel Garner after a six-month search. Garner, whose hiring was announced at a press conference Wednesday, is coming off a U.S. Department of Justice effort to improve global forensics that took him to labs in 30 countries on five continents. He formerly was president of Cellmark Diagnostics Inc. and managed the forensics lab for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

“Dr. Garner is assessing what our needs are. There are areas in the lab that are centers of excellence. There are other areas in forensics that need some work, frankly,” said Scott Hochberg, who chairs the city forensics board. “We need to identify those and appropriate the budget to those. We’re looking forward to moving forward with creating the best municipal crime lab and regional crime lab in the country.”

Next, Hochberg said, Garner will hire three supporting managers and the board will continue figuring out how legally to make the transition from the police department.

See here and here for some background. The Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corporation has been moving in a positive direction since its creation, and this looks like another good step. I’m eager to see how they ultimately operate. In the meantime, we got a little bit more information about the long-discussed but so far not proposed possibility of the city and the county joining forces:

[Mayor Annise] Parker has said the city lab must make more progress before merger talks, and has said the county lab is not sufficiently independent of the Harris County Commissioners Court or the District Attorney’s Office.

Commissioners Court members have said they set the institute’s budget, but that it answers to its accrediting agencies, not the court. The sooner the city expresses an interest in joining, county officials have said, the better; the county is designing its new forensics tower.

“We’re in very fruitful discussions with Harris County about a joint (inmate) processing center; we are working closely on everything from Buffalo Bayou to building new libraries,” Parker said Wednesday. “I don’t think this will be any different. When we determine it makes financial and logistical sense to work together, we will do that, but I can’t give you a timeline.”

Well, at least they’re talking. Relations between the city and the county have never been better, so if this is going to happen, sometime soon would be nice.